Hidden histories History & Culture

India’s first woman auditor

R. Sivabhogam Photo: Special Arrangement  

I first came across the name of R. Sivabhogam in freedom fighter S. Ambjummal’s biography Naan Kanda Bharatam. As per the book, Sivabhogam was an active participant in the Youth League headed by Rukmini Lakshmipathy that served as a propaganda vehicle for the Congress in the 1920s. Later, when the women of Madras formed a Swadesi League, Sivabhogam became a member. The organisation, which was meant initially to teach Hindi, block printing on khadi and the popularising of nationalist songs soon became a vehicle for boycotting British goods and picketing of liquor shops. The members also sold swadesi products at public meetings. Sivabhogam took part in all of these activities. She, along with her compatriots that included formidable personalities like Krishnabai Nimbkar, Ambujammal and her aunt Janammal, the multi-faceted Vai Mu Kothainayaki and Margaret Cousins, were all sentenced to a year’s imprisonment at Vellore gaol. It was while there that Sivabhogam decided on her career — she would become an auditor.

Further details about her life emerged from a booklet brought out in 2006 to commemorate her birth centenary. Born on July 23, 1907, Sivabhogam had studied at the Lady Willingdon School in Triplicane where her thinking was deeply influenced by Sister R.S. Subbalakshmi, the pioneering reformer of widows’ lives. She then graduated from Queen Mary’s College and became an active freedom fighter, a satyagrahi. She was imprisoned in 1931.

Released from prison a year later, she was successful in the Graduate Diploma in Accountancy (GDA) exam, becoming in 1933 India’s first woman accountant. She enrolled as an articled assistant with C.S. Sastry an auditor, whose firm of Sastri & Shah still functions from Armenian Street. Having completed her tenure there she planned to set up an independent practice only to be thwarted by a legislation that disallowed those who had undergone a prison sentence from registering themselves as accountants. But Sivabhogam was not one to give up. She filed a writ questioning the logic behind such an Act and pursued the case tenaciously. The verdict was in her favour and she was allowed to set up independent practice in 1937.

Remaining single, wearing only khadi and travelling everywhere by bus, Sivabhogam chose to take up the audit of several social welfare organisations in particular. The Institute of Chartered Accountants of India (ICAI) came up in 1949, and Sivabhogam became a member. She became a Fellow a year later. Between 1955 and 1958 she served as the Chairperson of the Southern Regional Council of the ICAI. It was during this period that she instituted an award for the best lady candidate in the CA examinations. The R. Sivabhogam Prize continues to be awarded year after year.

This feisty lady passed away on June 14, 1966. This year therefore marks the 50th anniversary of her death. Women auditors are now in plenty but in many ways it was because of what Sivabhogam decided to do, while imprisoned in a cell in Vellore.

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Printable version | Jun 17, 2021 3:48:32 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/India%E2%80%99s-first-woman-auditor/article14389966.ece

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